At first blush, Adam Wainwright had his best start of the 2012 season while pitching a complete game shutout. This was the kind of start that gives hope that Wainwright is starting to return to form following his season lost to ligament reconstruction surgery on his elbow. He only allowed four hits, two of them doubles, walked only one batter and struck out nine. The nine strikeouts were a season high. And his 87 game score as calculated by Baseball-reference.com was the best of all pitchers last night and easily the best of his season. After recording game scores of 25 and 40 the previous two starts, is this a sign that Wainwright is all the way back?
This observer is not so sure. First of all, the performance was against the San Diego Padres. That team from southern California is 15th of 16 National League teams in batting average and on-base percentage and dead last in slugging. The Padres are also second in the NL in strikeouts. So Wainwright's offerings were a little like using a hand grenade to wipe out little toy soldiers. Frankly, with a team OPS of .625, the Padres are making most pitchers look awfully good. The Padres swung at eleven of Wainwright's offerings outside the strike zone (see chart below from Brooks Baseball).
But we can hang one hat on Wainwright's outing: His velocity. All of his pitches have been down in velocity this year compared to where he was in 2010. His fastball had been a full two MPH slower than two years ago. That is to be expected from someone coming back from that kind of injury. But last night, after averaging 89.7 MPH for the season on his fastball, Wainwright was consistently over 90 the entire game. He threw three pitches over 92 MPH and averaged 90.72 on his four-seam fastballs and 90.54 on his two-seam version. His cutter averaged 88.2 MPH last night after averaging only 86 MPH for the season with that pitch. And the cutter was his most effective pitch generating four strikeouts.
The conclusion is mixed. It is extremely dangerous to make any solid conclusions based on one outing against a very bad offensive team. But, at the same time, the up-tick in velocity is a welcome sign and perhaps means that Wainwright's arm strength is building and he can be more successful in his following starts. Wainwright, to this point, has been the weakest link in the Cardinals' rotation. This former All Star returning to form would make the Cardinals all the more tougher to beat in the National League Central Division.